Some answers to tennis' drug testing questions are right in front of us

LONDON -- Before the first serve was made here at the All England Club, drug testing was again a hot topic among the media and some of tennis' biggest stars.

One of those players, Serena Williams, was asked about a recent Deadspin article that reported she was drug tested by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency more frequently in the first half of 2018 than other American tennis players. The 23-time Grand Slam champ said she was surprised by those numbers.

"I didn't know I was tested three times more, in some cases five times more, than everyone else," Williams said, adding that she planned to reach out to someone at the agency to inquire as to why. "But I'm in the middle of Wimbledon," she said. "If it wasn't Wimbledon, I would pursue answers."

Williams' comments shed more light on the ongoing dialogue -- and complications -- surrounding drug testing, the agencies that oversee those protocols and how information is disseminated to athletes. In tennis, a sport that has been slower than others in implementing stronger protocols, some answers are already available.

Over the past five years, Williams has been drug tested in the same range as other top tennis players, according to the most recent statistics published by the International Tennis Federation, the global governing body and primary testing authority of the sport.

Like those of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, the ITF's stats are publicly available online; and, when taken in union with the USADA stats, present a fuller picture of drug testing in tennis.

"Across the sporting world, the top athletes are always going to be tested more than lower-ranked athletes, that's just the nature of the beast," Dr. Stuart Miller, manager for the ITF's London-based anti-doping program, recently told ESPN. "So, while it's a shame if people get frustrated by the process, the intention of any anti-doping organization is to protect the integrity of the sport, the health of the players and their right to clean competition."

A breakdown of how tennis players are tested year-round also adds clarity to how many tests an athlete is subjected to and where and by whom those tests are performed.

"At any time, any athlete is subject to testing by three organizations: the international federation of the sport, the anti-doping agency of the country the athlete is in and the World Anti-Doping Agency," Miller explained. "They coordinate themselves in order to ensure that what is applied to any particular sport or athlete is a relatively coherent anti-doping program."

Viewed in a vacuum, any one agency's stats produce an incomplete image of how frequently an athlete is tested during any given year. That's especially true of tennis, USADA CEO Travis Tygart said.

"If you look just at our testing numbers, that is -- at best -- half the picture," Tygart told ESPN on Monday. "And those numbers are particularly misleading for tennis, given how long their season is, as well as the length of tournaments, where we don't have jurisdiction to test unless we are granted permission by the ITF, which we rarely are. It is misleading to make any judgment without seeing the full tests that have been accomplished by all organizations."

Take Serena, for example.

Williams was tested five times by USADA between January and June of this year. Over that same span, Serena's older sister, Venus, was tested twice, CoCo Vandeweghe (the No. 16 player in the world), was also tested twice, and 2017 US Open champion Sloane Stephens (No. 4) and Madison Keys (No. 11) were each tested once. Serena Williams was also tested by USADA more than any of the top five American men's players. Those numbers are publicly available on the agency's website, updated weekly. But those numbers do not account for in-competition or out-of-competition tests administered by WADA or the ITF -- the latter of which Miller said accounts for more than three-quarters of all testing of elite tennis players, adding that while WADA retains the right to test any athlete at any time in any sport, it rarely exercises that right within the sport of tennis.

And because the ITF only publishes its data at the end of the year, it is impossible to know how many tests any player has undergone during the first six months of 2018. That's why looking at data for the past five years provides a more complete comparison between Williams and her peers.

In 2017, Williams was tested out of competition by the ITF 1-3 times and USADA three times. (Unlike USADA, the ITF publishes only ranges -- 1-3, 4-6 or 7-plus -- not specific numbers.) In 2014-16, that number was 7-plus for Serena. In 2013, she was tested 4-6 times. Those numbers are virtually identical to her American peers, as well as top players like Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Caroline Wozniacki. Her low 2017 number was likely due to the fact that she was on maternity leave for most of the year and played in only two tournaments. (Story continues below chart.)

"We look at athletes on a case-by-case basis, but the general practice is there is no testing starting in the third trimester until a month after giving birth," Tygart said.

The ITF sets out to collaborate with national organizations like USADA to maximize resources and prevent overlap. When an athlete is competing in an international event or is outside of his or her home country, the ITF has jurisdiction. Under those guidelines, Williams, who spent much of the first half of 2018 in the United States, would have more out-of-competition USADA tests than a player who spent the majority of those months outside of the country, where the ITF would oversee those out-of-competition tests.

"It varies from nation to nation," Miller said. "But by and large, the [national organizations] know, because we publish all of our data, who's been tested how many times and therefore they can say, this person is getting a lot of testing elsewhere, therefore I can focus my resources on athletes that aren't getting tested."

And, according to Miller, the athlete's particular location doesn't lessen the opportunity for them to be tested.

In a separate news conference at Wimbledon last week, Federer prompted questions as to whether an athlete could avoid drug testing by spending out-of-competition weeks in a location where the ITF has fewer doping-control officers. "In the village I live in in Switzerland, the tester lives in the same village, so it's very convenient," he said. "In Dubai, I've hardly ever been tested, which has been quite disappointing. To be honest, in the 15 years I've been there, it's been one test. Maybe that's the part I don't like so much: the inconsistency of the places where they test."

Said Miller: "We don't wait until athletes are in a place where we have more testers. The nature of the tennis calendar means there are competitions going on most weeks of the year, with the exception of December. So, the opportunity for athletes to spend 12 weeks hiding in the woods, in our experience, has not been flagged as a major risk in tennis."

So why does the ITF does not publish its data more frequently than once a year, or provide specific numbers like its counterparts at USADA and FINA (swimming's governing body), which could go a long way to preventing confusion? Miller said it has more to do with doping prevention than a lack of transparency.

"We go well above and beyond what the requirements of the World Anti-Doping Code are for publishing data," Miller said. "We want to make sure that the athletes aren't able to take the information, identify patterns of testing and use it for doping-avoidance purposes. Reporting more detail may also lead to unnecessary speculation about players being subject to target testing where, for example, more samples have been collected from a player than from others of a similar ranking. But it's always under review. If we feel that more detailed publication would outweigh the benefits of unpredictability, that might be a change we would make in the future."

And while Miller said he has not spoken to Serena Williams directly, the door is open for conversation, and for further education for all sides. (Requests for comment from Williams' reps were not immediately returned.)

"The testing is broader, more sophisticated, it applies to a lot more people and we're doing more of it," Miller said. "We're collecting a lot more blood samples, we've got an athlete biological-passport program; we've added all of those things [since 2006].

"Elite athletes have a lot of time on their hands, and reading educational materials might not always be on the top of their list of priorities, despite the importance. ... What you want is an educational program that not only warns about the dangers and tries to influence all of those groups, you also want a program that stops those people from falling foul of the rules who didn't intend to."

From his perspective, Tygart said more transparency would go a long way to avoiding misleading discussions and providing athletes with the confidence that they are being treated fairly by their federations.

"We have analyzed whether publishing a test after it is completed could lead to someone learning to defeat the system and we simply don't agree," he said. "It's why we have pushed other international federations and the IOC to be open and transparent about testing numbers. It adds a level of accountability, which is the real reason other organizations don't do it. We think transparency is key."